It's a sign of how much I like the work of Alfonso Cuarón that he directed the only Harry Potter movie I liked. More important, though, is that he directed at least four other movies that are better than that one. And now that includes Roma.
With Roma, Cuarón manages to combine the personal and the epic at the same time. That he does this while covering only one year in the life of his characters is amazing. Much of what happens to those characters is relatively mundane, which makes the scene where Cleo, one of the maids of a middle-class Mexican family, goes shopping for a crib stand out all the more. For she never gets that crib ... the shopping is interrupted by the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre. Cuarón has set the stage for that historic event without drawing attention to what he is preparing, so it's not really a surprise when violence breaks out. But before and after the Massacre, his characters continue with their daily lives.
Roma is obsessively autobiographical. Cuarón grew up in a house very much like the one in the movie, and he duplicated that house to such an extent that he used some family furniture to add authenticity. Yet Cuarón has an odd way of telling his own story. The kids (including, one assumes, the stand-in for Cuarón) are indistinguishable from each other. None of them develop unique characteristics. Instead, Cuarón tells the story of his childhood by giving us the story of Cleo. We don't exactly see things through her eyes. Rather, we see things as the young Alfonso remembers Cleo. He is not the main character in his own autobiography ... he is in fact fairly anonymous.
In this, Cuarón demands a lot of Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo. She is not a professional actress ... this is her first role. It works perfectly. Aparicio never grabs the screen the way a more flamboyant actor might, and it's appropriate, for Cleo blends in with the people in her life in much the same way, never standing out.
In Roma, Cuarón shows the differences between the classes without pounding the fact over our heads. Cleo is "one of the family", but she's also a servant, often taken for granted. Her employers are benevolent, but they are still her employers, at least until a remarkable scene at the beach where Cleo shows her value to the family more than she ever has before. (That scene, which occurs during a single long take, is one of many highlights of the film.)
Mention must be made of the look of the film, which is in black and white. Cuarón shot it himself, after his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, became unavailable. It's a beautiful film, filled with long takes and long shots ... there is an intimacy to what we are seeing, but Cuarón doesn't rely on close-ups to get that effect.
Top five movies by Alfonso Cuarón: